A drama worth waiting for ...

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The Independent Online
About 30 years ago I conceived a great desire to write a play like one of Tom Stoppard's plays. I know exactly when it happened. It happened just as I was coming out of the first Stoppard play I had ever seen. It happened again the next time, just as I was coming out of the second Stoppard play I saw. It grew to be a habit after a while - in fact, eventually I started getting the urge to write plays like Stoppard's just before I went into new plays by Stoppard.

I never did get round to writing a play like Stoppard at the time. But I did work out the title. It was going to be called Waiting for Stoppard. I wasn't too sure about the plot, although I knew two companions would be sitting around talking a lot of the time - as they tend to in quite a few Stoppard plays. In Beckett plays, too, but I have never enjoyed Samuel Beckett the way I do Stoppard.

What I did achieve at the time was a meeting with Tom Stoppard, and it was a mind-unsettling encounter because it showed to me that what we call Stoppardian is not limited to the stage. My first of very few encounters with the playwright rivals, in its Stoppardian quality, anything he ever wrote.

I was a junior member of the Punch staff at the time, and Tom Stoppard was a guest at one of the regular Punch lunches, weekly events to which the editor used to ask famous people he wouldn't meet otherwise. Normally, I stood around before lunch, bracing myself with alcohol for the ordeal, but on this occasion I leapt in and secured myself a seat next to my hero. I found myself sitting between him and John Wells, another theatre person I had never met before.

I knew it was going to be a fairly low-profile lunch for me between these heavyweights of the serious showbiz scene, and so it proved. Wells and Stoppard conversed straight across me about all the arts and showbiz celebrities they knew, more or less ignoring me (who knew none of them) and letting me sink lower and lower in my chair to improve audibility between them.

The conversation started, as I remember, with Stoppard asking John Wells how Eleanor Bron was getting along.

"Oh, she's fine, " said John. "She's acting up in Newcastle, in a play with John Fortune ..."

"She's terribly good," said Stoppard.

"I think John Fortune's rather good, too," said Wells.

"Yes, he's very good," said Stoppard.

"Incidentally," said Wells, "did I hear you were doing some work with Jonathan Miller? I've always wanted to work with Jonathan."

"Isn't he wonderful?" said Stoppard. "Yes, nothing is fixed but I hope to be getting together with him soon ..."

Sickening, isn't it? I felt rather as if I were Enid Blyton who had got caught up with the existentialist mob at Jean-Paul Sartre's table and couldn't even catch the waiter's eye to get the bill and the hell out. But then something happened that made me change my mind. By the time lunch was halfway through, there was a lull between the two, almost as if they had now run out of mutual acquaintances to discuss, almost as if, even for such men-about-London as these, there was a limit to the amount of people they knew. So they started filling in a bit of background detail about the people they'd already talked about, with Wells asking first:

"So, when did you first run into Eleanor Bron?"

There was a small silence.

"Oh," said Stoppard, "I've never actually met her, but I knew you and she were colleagues, so I just thought I'd inquire. Incidentally, you and Jonathan Miller ... how well do you know him?"

"Not at all," said Wells, "it was just that I'd heard that you and he might be collaborating, so I was naturally curious ..."

During the first half of lunch the two of them had cemented a new friendship, using as cement the names and doings of their well-known friends. Then they had suddenly discovered they had no friends in common at all, and the second half of lunch was spent unravelling the new friendship, with the cement turning to dust all over the floor, and only me there as a silent chronicler to witness this Stoppardian situation, right down to the moment when the two of them left lunch and departed, the best of strangers.

Was it then that I got the idea for Waiting for Stoppard? It may have been. Anyway, I have finally written the play and it is on in London for a brief run (until 18 November) at the Southwark Playhouse and, yes, this has turned belatedly into a naked plug for a product, but if it takes me 30 years to write each play, I won't get many chances.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if John Wells and Tom Stoppard came to see the play, though perhaps not on the same night. I'm not sure I could sit through that conversation again.